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1. Review of Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War

sheinkin_most dangerousstar2Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret 
History of the Vietnam War
by Steve Sheinkin
Middle School, High School   Roaring Brook   361 pp.
9/15   978-1-59643-952-8   $19.99   g

Without a wasted word or scene, and with the timing and prowess of a writer of thrillers, Sheinkin takes on a spectacularly complex story—and makes it comprehensible to teen readers: how Daniel Ellsberg evolved from a committed “cold warrior” to an antiwar activist, and why and how he leaked the Pentagon Papers—“seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over twenty-three years”—which led to the Watergate Scandal, the fall of the Nixon administration, and, finally, the end of the Vietnam War. From the very beginning of his account, Sheinkin demonstrates the human drama unfolding behind the scenes; the secrecy surrounding White House and Pentagon decisions; the disconnect between the public and private statements of our nation’s leaders. Throughout, readers will find themselves confronted by large, timely questions, all of which emerge organically from the book’s events: Can we trust our government? How do we know? How much secrecy is too much? The enormous amount of incorporated primary-source documentation (from interviews with Daniel Ellsberg himself to White House recordings) means not only that readers know much more than ordinary U.S. citizens did at the time but that every conversation and re-enacted scene feels immediate and compelling. Sheinkin (Bomb, rev. 11/12; The Port Chicago 50, rev. 3/14) has an unparalleled gift for synthesizing story and bringing American history to life; here, he’s outdone even himself. Meticulous scholarship includes a full thirty-
six pages of bibliography and source notes; judiciously placed archival photographs add to the sense of time and place.

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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2. Review of Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (Flash Point/Roaring Brook)
While comprehensive in his synthesis of the political, historical, and scientific aspects of the creation of the first nuclear weapon, Sheinkin focuses his account with an extremely alluring angle: the spies. The book opens in 1950 with the confession of Harry Gold — but to what? And thus we flash back to Robert Oppenheimer in the dark 1930s, as he and readers are handed another question by the author: “But how was a theoretical physicist supposed to save the world?” Oppenheimer’s realization that an atomic bomb could be created to use against Nazi Germany is coupled with the knowledge that the Germans must be working from the same premise, and the Soviets are close behind. We periodically return to Gold’s ever-deepening betrayals as well as other acts of espionage, most excitingly the two stealth attacks on occupied Norway’s Vemork power plant, where the Germans were manufacturing heavy water to use in their own nuclear program. As he did in the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner The Notorious Benedict Arnold (rev. 1/11), Sheinkin here maintains the pace of a thriller without betraying history (source notes and an annotated bibliography are exemplary) or skipping over the science; photo galleries introducing each section help readers organize the events and players. Writing with journalistic immediacy, the author eschews editorializing up through the chilling last lines: “It’s a story with no end in sight. And, like it or not, you’re in it.” Index.

From the November/December 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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3. Review of The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the 
Fight for Civil Rights

Port ChicagoThe Port Chicago 50:
Disaster, Mutiny, and the
Fight for Civil Rights

by Steve Sheinkin
Middle School    Roaring Brook    190 pp.
1/14    978-1-59643-796-8    $19.99    g
e-book ed.  978-1-59643-983-2    $9.99

Sheinkin follows Bomb (rev. 11/12) with an account of another aspect of the Second World War, stemming from an incident that seems small in scope but whose ramifications would go on to profoundly change the armed forces and the freedom of African Americans to serve their country. The Port Chicago 50 was a group of navy recruits at Port Chicago in California doing one of the few service jobs available to black sailors at the beginning of the war: loading bombs and ammunition onto battleships. “All the officers standing on the pier and giving orders were white. All the sailors handling explosives were black.” When, as seems inevitable given the shoddy safety practices, there was an explosion that left more than three hundred dead, fifty men refused to go back to work, occasioning a trial for mutiny. Sheinkin focuses the events through the experience of Joe Small, who led the protest against the dangerous and unequal working conditions, but the narrative loses momentum as it tries to move between Small’s experience and its larger causes and effects. Still, this is an unusual entry point for the study of World War II and the nascent civil rights movement. Photographs are helpful, and documentation is thorough. Picture credits and index not seen.

From the March/April 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Fight for Civil Rights appeared first on The Horn Book.

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4. Picturing fantasy

Funny, action-packed, thought-provoking (and sometimes all of the above), these three graphic novels and one…well, what do you call Brian Selznick’s books? take readers on fantastic adventures.

selznick_marvelsBrian Selznick defined his own format with The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck. He pushes the envelope even further in The Marvels. Black-and-white drawings (over four hundred pages’ worth) wordlessly tell the story of a storm, a shipwreck, and a rescue in a theater. In the text narrative that follows, a boy named Joseph runs away from boarding school to his uncle Albert’s house in London, a place that feels strangely from another time. Selznick is a unique and masterful storyteller, and his story-inside-a-story unfolds an emotional narrative that will leave readers marveling. (Scholastic, 10–12 years)

mccoola_baba yaga's assistantIn Marika McCoola’s Baba Yaga’s Assistant, Masha answers a help-wanted ad to become assistant to the mortar-and-pestle-riding, child-eating folkloric character. To win the position, she must creatively accomplish challenges set forth by Baba Yaga. Masha draws on lessons learned through her grandmother’s stories and her own inherited magical ability, uncovering her family’s complex connection to the witch along the way. Illustrator Emily Carroll‘s vividly colored digital art establishes setting and tone. Comprised of short chapters, this graphic novel shines in its pacing, harmony of image and text, and use of flashbacks to advance plot. (Candlewick, 12–14 years)

watson_princess decomposia and count spatulaWith her hypochondriac father taken to his bed, capable Princess Decomposia of the Underworld — star of Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula — is running the show…and running herself ragged. A baker named Count Spatula joins the castle staff, and his nourishing food and supportive demeanor help the princess get through her hectic days. When the king has him fired, the princess must decide whether to stand up to her father. Andi Watson’s unique and funny graphic novelpopulated by friendly creatures of the night — has a decidedly supernatural twist, but at its core is a relatable tale of self-actualization and blossoming romance. (Roaring Brook/First Second, 12–14 years)

stevenson_nimonaBallister Blackheart — ex-knight and current supervillain — is focused on the destruction of the Institute of Law Enforcement and Heroics. He also wouldn’t mind getting even with Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, a knight-school acquaintance who shot off Blackheart’s right arm. Just as Blackheart’s plans are coming to fruition, plucky young shapeshifter Nimona shows up on his doorstep claiming to be his new sidekick. Set in a medieval-type kingdom mixed with futuristic science, Noelle Stevenson’s webcomic-turned-graphic-novel Nimona entertainingly tweaks both the science-fiction and fantasy genres. Nimona herself is beautifully flawed and refreshingly unstereotypical. (HarperTeen, 11–15 years)

From the August 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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5. This is my life

Memoirs capture moments in time, those events that are formative or emblematic or otherwise meaningful for their subjects. Surprising, intimate, cathartic — Brown Girl Dreaming, El Deafo, Becoming Maria (see Randy Ribay’s interview with Sonia Manzano), the new books below, and these recommended by the Horn Book Guide, for example — memoirs offer glimpses into the larger picture of a life.

gantos_trouble in meFourteen-year-old Jack Gantos was a “drifty kid who was lost at sea…easily led off course.” Bored with his own life, he tried to be somebody else and fell into the orbit of juvenile delinquent neighbor Gary Pagoda. In The Trouble in Me, Gantos effectively narrates his own story, reviewing portions of his life to identify what led him to abandon his “better self” in favor of later becoming a drug smuggler who ended up in a federal penitentiary. As explained in the afterword, this volume acts as a preface to Hole in My Life, and readers who read both will experience the full arc of Jack’s wild behavior, severe consequences, and, ultimately, redemption. (Farrar, 14 years and up)

jimenez_taking holdIn Taking Hold: From Migrant Childhood to Columbia University — the fourth volume of Francisco Jiménez’s memoir series (starting with The Circuit) — the author delivers a moving account of his graduate school years at Columbia University during the turbulent 1960s, paying particular attention to those friends and mentors who helped shape his intellectual pursuits and academic career path. He also relates his courtship and marriage to his college sweetheart, Laura, and the birth of their two children. Throughout it all, Jiménez never forgets his beginnings as the child of migrant farm workers, frequently alluding to and briefly recapitulating events from earlier volumes. His ingratiating storytelling—who else could make these years of adulthood such a compelling read for teens?—makes us root for him to succeed. (Houghton, 14 years and up)

engle_enchanted airAuthor and poet Margarita Engle explores her own past in Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir, a collection of emotionally rich memory poems. The daughter of a Don Quixote–obsessed American artist of Ukrainian Jewish descent and a beautiful homesick Cuban émigrée, Engle describes joyful visits to her mother’s homeland as a child. She then vividly contrasts the smoggy air of sprawling Los Angeles with the enchanted air of that small, magical-seeming island, and at first going between the two cultures is fairly seamless. But then there’s the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and suddenly all is different. Engle’s personal reverie gives young readers an intimate view of a complicated time and life. (Atheneum, 12–16 years)

From the August 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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6. The Bedsby Tales app review

bedsby menuTales from the Crypt fans who’ve been dying to introduce the next generation to episodic horror will be all over The Bedsby Tales (Jacob Duane Johnson, March 2015), a series of short stories for middle graders with some interactive elements. “Episode 1: Thoughts of Unknown” begins with a dubious welcome from a shadowy-creature storyteller in a creepy lair (“Well hello there my little friend, I’ve been expecting you. Run into any, problems along the way?” *menacing chuckle*).

The story in rhyme begins: “There’s something creepy about a house in the night. / Mysteries of emptiness and absence of light.” The narrator, Kevan Brighting, a 2014 BAFTA nominee for games performer, does his best Vincent Price (and with those rhymes it’s difficult not to think of “Thriller,” but not in a bad way). There are good sound effects, too: creaky floorboards, rattling wind, ticking clocks, and tinkly, haunting music.

The visuals are shadowy mostly black-and-white cartoon illustrations, with a shifting cinematic perspective; moving down a long corridor or up a windy staircase, for example, or zooming down from the ceiling and toward a small key hole in a door. When you finally reach the destination — a little boy’s room — there’s a pause in the narration and a wordless scene plays out, complete with scary monster (and it is pretty scary; then there’s another one, too, under the bed, which is even scarier). The story picks back up and moves swiftly to its everything’s-ok-fornow denouement. Then we’re back to our crypt-master who sets the stage for next time.

bedsby monster

In the interactive mode (you can also set it to auto play), listeners are occasionally stopped to perform tasks inside the creepy house: prying up floorboards to unearth a key; pulling portraits off the wall to find a clock’s hand; using that hand to set the time at midnight (that one’s the most fun); using the key to enter the boy’s room. It works well, pacing-wise, and lets kids play a somewhat active role (though seasoned app or e-book users may not find enough interactive bells and whistles).

There are six stories coming in the current “season” (the first episode is free). They’re definitely creepy, but not too terrifying. Good for young horror fans who can take the tingles or slightly older ones who don’t like blood and gore.

Available for iPad (requires iOS 6.0 or later); free for the introductory story. Recommended for intermediate and middle-school users.

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7. Lives and times

The settings of these narrative nonfiction titles span decades and geography — from WWII Denmark to contemporary Malawi — but the issues they explore are incredibly timely.

kamkwamba_boy who harnessed the windWhen heavy rains, then drought, devastated his country of Malawi and the corrupt government didn’t respond, young William Kamkwamba used his scientific ingenuity to help people in need. His windmill made from “bottle-cap washers, rusted tractor parts, and [an] old bicycle frame” was a success; soon William dreamed of conquering darkness, pumping water to the villages, and fighting hunger. Cowritten with Bryan Mealer, Kamkwamba’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition (illustrated by Anna Hymas) is inspiring — a well-told true tale of one young man’s passion for science making his world better. (Dial, 9–12 years)

The Boys Who Challenged HitlerPhillip Hoose introduces readers to a little-known resistance movement in The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club. When Hitler invaded Denmark, teenaged Knud Pedersen (with his brother Jens and some mates) decided that “If the adults would not act, we would.” First using civil disobedience then employing increasingly dangerous acts of sabotage against the country’s Nazi occupiers, the group inspired widespread Danish revolt. Hoose brilliantly weaves Pederson’s own words into the larger narrative of wartime Denmark, showing how the astonishing bravery of a few ordinary Danish teens started something extraordinary. A 2015 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Honor Book and an outstanding addition to the WWII canon. (Farrar, 11–15 years)

lewis_march bk 2Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin’s March: Book Two picks up where the previous volume left off in relating Lewis’s personal experiences of the civil rights movement. Dramatic descriptions, along with Nate Powell’s vivid black-and-white illustrations, relate direct action campaigns in Nashville (sit-ins at fast-food restaurants and cafeterias, “stand-ins” at a segregated movie theater), Freedom Rides into the “heart of the beast” in the Deep South, and the 1963 March on Washington, where Lewis spoke alongside Dr. King. Among the many excellent volumes available on the subject of civil rights this is a standout, the graphic format a perfect vehicle for delivering the one-two punch of powerful words and images. (Top Shelf Productions, 11–15 years)

blumenthal_tommyIn Tommy: The Gun That Changed America, Karen Blumenthal traces the history of the Thompson submachine gun (a.k.a. the Tommy gun) and its times. After the Spanish-American War, Army officer John Thompson believed that America needed a lightweight, automatic rifle. The Army did not share his opinion, so Thompson left the service and developed his own weapon, completed with superior bad timing on Armistice Day in 1918. Without a ready military market, the Tommy gun wound up in the hands of crooks and bootleggers. Blumenthal shows the complexity of gun culture then and now with thorough research and impeccable documentation. (Roaring Brook, 11–15 years)

From the June 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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8. Listen, laugh, and learn

Some stories can be at their funniest — and most poignant — when read aloud. The following audiobooks, recommended for intermediate and middle-school listeners, offer lots of laughs and lots to learn.

perkins_nuts to you audioLynne Rae Perkins’s Nuts to You tells the wacky story of a trio of industrious young squirrels saving their respective colonies from the impending danger of human deforestation. What’s lost in the absence of Perkins’s quirky, digressive illustrations is made up for in Jessica Almasy’s all-in, over-the-top performance. Making the most of the sensory descriptions, comical dialogue, and tangled action, she maximizes this classic-feeling animal fantasy’s considerable entertainments and adds weight to the deeper environmental message. (Recorded Books, 8–11 years)

graff_absolutely almost audioAlbie, star of Lisa Graff’s Absolutely Almost, is not having a good fifth-grade year at his new school. His best friend from his old school, Erlan, is distracted by being on reality TV, and Betsy, his only real new friend, isn’t speaking to him. But there are spots of brightness, including Albie’s punning math club teacher, his free-spirited babysitter Calista, and, of course, doughnuts. Noah Galvin’s narration is engaging and earnest, reflecting Albie’s naiveté and his heart in equal measure. The quick pace pulls readers along to the hopeful, satisfying conclusion. (Recorded Books, 8–11 years)

gantos_key that swallowed joey pigza audioWith his depressed mother in the hospital and his ne’er-do-well father out of the picture — but lurking — Joey becomes “man of the house.” The unexpected arrival of Olivia, “the meanest blind girl in the world,” helps lessen the load, but Joey must still prove himself to himself in order to move beyond his wired-kid past. Narrated by author Jack Gantos, The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza is the fifth (and final) Joey Pigza story, and there’s nuance and emotion at every turn. It’s a satisfying sendoff for a uniquely imperfect kid in a very imperfect family. (Listening Library, 9–12 years)

holm_fourteenth goldfish audiobookOn its surface, The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm delights as a comic tale of a middle-school girl coming to terms with her grandfather’s fountain-of-youth breakthrough, which has turned him into a teenager. As the plot bounces along, however, subtle character development and substantial inquiry add layers of meaning, posing important questions about bioethics and family responsibility. Georgette Perna’s frothy narration enhances the novel’s lighter elements, keeping the pace brisk and humorously reflecting the adolescent cadence of the dialogue; when the novel’s deeper revelations surface, they are that much more surprising and reverberant. (Listening Library, 10–14 years)

From the June 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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9. Review of March: Book Two

lewis_march bk 2star2 March: Book Two
by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin; illus. by Nate Powell
Middle School, High School   Top Shelf Productions   192 pp.
1/15   978-1-60309-400-9   $19.95   g

Lewis and Aydin begin this second volume of the graphic memoir trilogy in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2009 (President Obama’s first inauguration), then they move back in time to 1960 to pick up where March: Book One (rev. 1/14) left off. Dramatic descriptions and vivid black-and-white illustrations of SNCC’s direct action campaigns in Nashville (sit-ins at fast-food restaurants and cafeterias, “stand-ins” at a segregated movie theater) are followed by accounts of the Freedom Rides into the “heart of the beast” in the Deep South, and on through the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, where Lewis spoke alongside Dr. King. (Back matter includes the original draft of Lewis’s speech, a more fiery, radical version of the speech he delivered, a debate about which took place up to the moment he stepped onstage.) Since this is Lewis’s personal story, the account has the authority of a passionate participant, and the pacing ramps up tension and historical import. Events and personalities aren’t romanticized in the text or the illustrations, which themselves don’t flinch from violence; in addition to exploring the dream that drove the civil rights movement, the story also portrays its divisions. Flash-forwards to Barack Obama’s inauguration appear judiciously throughout, an effective reminder to readers about the effects of the movement. Among the many excellent volumes available on the subject of civil rights this is a standout, the graphic format a perfect vehicle for delivering the one-two punch of powerful words and images.

From the May/June 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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10. Guess who came to dinner: James Patterson in Australia

There is a media and reader buzz about James Patterson, the world’s biggest selling author, who is in Australia at the moment. It was announced on Tuesday that Patterson is giving grants of $500 to $5000 to independent bookshops in Australia and New Zealand, to a total of $100,000. This is an extremely generous gift […]

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11. Screaming at the Ump, by Audrey Vernick | Book Review

Screaming at the Ump will appeal to both boys and girls who are interested in sports (especially baseball), and journalism, coping with the transition to middle school, or dealing with family conflicts.

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12. Fearless females

From an aspiring journalist to an up-and-coming roller derby grrl, the determined and curious female protagonists of these intermediate and middle-school books are ready to take on the world.

springstubb_moonpenny islandIn Tricia Springstubb’s Moonpenny Island, the titular tiny Ohio vacation spot is lousy with fossils — specifically, of trilobites from the Cambrian period. Sixth-grade townie Flor becomes fascinated with trilobites’ eyes after learning they were “among the very first creatures” to develop them. Flor herself is, in some ways, as sightless as early trilobites, for she misses much of what’s going on in her family and in her interconnected island community. Flor’s growing awareness of those around her results in a unique protagonist who, like a fossil, creates an imprint that remains after her story is finished. (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, 9–12 years)

birdsall_penderwicks in springJeanne Birdsall‘s fourth Penderwicks book, The Penderwicks in Spring, focuses on Batty, now ten and the “senior member of the younger Penderwick siblings.” To raise money for singing lessons, she starts a neighborhood odd-jobs business. There’s a lot of melancholy here: dog-walking sadly reminds Batty of her dear departed Hound, and she suffers benign neglect from one big sister (Rosalind is temporarily boy-crazy) and hurtful words from another. On the plus side, stepbrother Ben (seven) and half-sister Lydia (two), in their cheering-up efforts, emerge as formidable Penderwicks themselves, and Batty rewardingly finds her voice at her climactic Grand Eleventh Birthday Concert. (Knopf, 9–12 years)

vaught_footer davis probably is crazyAt the start of Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy by Susan Vaught, eleven-year-old Footer Davis’s mother, who has bipolar disorder, is admitted to a psychiatric hospital after shooting off an elephant rifle in their backyard. To distract herself from her mother’s worsening condition, budding journalist Footer (with aspiring-detective best friend Peavine) investigates a dramatic unsolved local crime. Footer’s lively narrative voice and irreverent sense of humor add levity to the heavy subject matter. Like its heroine, the book itself is compelling, offbeat, and fearless. (Simon/Wiseman, 9–12 years)

jamieson_roller girlWhen her best friend Nicole starts harping on about ballet, fashion, and dating, twelve-year-old Astrid, star of Victoria Jamieson’s graphic novel Roller Girl, is left behind (read: not interested). She’s behind on the roller derby track, too, where she has signed up for summer boot camp even though she can’t skate five seconds without disaster. Astrid faces the challenges of derby as well as tweendom, and when the time comes for her big end-of-summer bout, “Asteroid” is brimming with confidence and ready to roll. Readers will identify with Astrid’s journey to find her authentic self. Have this book at the ready for Telgemeier fans racing to find something new. (Dial, 9–12 years)

From the April 2015 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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13. Jack & Louisa Act 1, by Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Kate Weterhead

Jack can't believe that he is moving from New York City to a suburb of Cleveland!  He knows that it's where his dad is from, and that work is bringing him there, but for a kid city born and raised, the suburb and its stand alone houses aren't exactly familiar territory for him.  His parents know he's feeling down when an offer of listening to the Into The Woods soundtrack is turned down.

Louisa is just coming down from being at Camp Curtain Up (theater camp if you can't tell) with the other MTNs (musical theater nerds).  As she and her parents pull into their driveway, they notice that the new family is moving in two doors down.  Louisa notices that the kid looks about her age, and then suddenly she notices his tshirt.  It's from the musical Mary Poppins! This is a very interesting development. After all, up until now, Louisa was the only MTN in her grade!

If Louisa only knew! Jack's dad's job wasn't the only reason they were moving to Cleveland.  Jack had lost a job himself. He is a theater kid, and not too long ago he was cast in the musical The Big Apple.  And not in a bit part either.  He was super excited to be part of the cast...until the first rehearsal.  Jack is going into 7th grade, and his voice was changing. The notes no longer came easily...and sometimes they didn't come at all.  So Jack was no longer first choice for the role.  Which obviously made leaving NYC a heck of a lot easier.

In this age of google, Louisa finds out about Jack pretty quickly.  And seeing as they are in the same class at school, she figures they are pretty much meant to be friends since they have so much in common.  But Jack is thinking about reinvention.  It's pretty easy to be a theater kid and be a boy in NYC, but in Cleveland he figures his soccer skills will make his life easier than his singing and dancing skills.

Sometimes, however, it's hard to turn off what you really love.  And when the community theater announces it's putting on one of Jack's favorite shows of all time, will he be able to resist the call of the stage (let alone Louisa's influence)?

This is a pitch perfect middle school story that's not simply about theater, but drills down into issues of family, friendship and being true to oneself.  Keenan-Bolger and Wetherhead get the voices spot on without ever venturing into over-the-top Glee caricatures.  The alternating voices go back and forth in time, but are never confusing, rather a great device for giving the back story in pieces instead of one big chunk.  Fans of Federle will eat this up, as will fans of realistic fiction and musical theater.

Super fun.

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14. Review of Listen, Slowly

lai_listen slowlyListen, Slowly
by Thanhhà Lại
Intermediate, Middle School   Harper/HarperCollins   260 pp.
2/15   978-0-06-222918-2   $16.99

This second novel from National Book Award winner Lại (Inside Out and Back Again, rev. 3/11) grabs readers from the start. California girl Mai is on a plane, accompanying Ba, her grandmother, on a trip to Vietnam. Mai, who planned to spend her summer at the beach flirting with “HIM,” the boy she has a crush on, is furious. Her dad says Ba needs her support — a detective has claimed he has news about Ong, Ba’s husband, who went missing during the Vietnam War — but the self-absorbed tween is still outraged. Lại convincingly shows Mai’s slow transformation from spoiled child to someone who can look beyond herself with compassion. Mai’s change of heart is believable, moving in fits and starts and taking its own sweet time; she retains her sarcastic sense of humor, but her snark gradually loses its bite, and she begins laughing at herself more than others. The heartbreaking sorrow of Ba’s, and Vietnam’s, past is eased some by the novel’s comical elements (a Vietnamese teen who learned English in the U.S. — and drawls like a Texan; a cousin who carries her enormous pet bullfrog with her everywhere). The detailed descriptions of Mai’s culture shock and acclimation bring the hot and humid Vietnamese setting, rural and urban, to life. Her strong-willed personality makes her an entertaining narrator; readers will happily travel anywhere with Mai.

From the March/April issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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15. Behind the Scenes at the White House: A Q&A with Nonfiction Author Katherine L. House

Just in time for Presidents' Day, I chatted with nonfiction author Katherine L. House about her recent book, White House for Kids. Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a copy of her book.

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16. Review of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

kamkwamba_boy who harnessed the windThe Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition
by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer; illus. by Anna Hymas
Intermediate, Middle School   Dial   294 pp.
2/15   978-0-8037-4080-8   $16.99   g

As a young boy growing up in Malawi, William Kamkwamba believed in — and was fearful of — magic. As he got a bit older, he was drawn to science. He tinkered with toy trucks and “monster wagons” (“chigiriri, that looked like American go-carts”) and began reading old science books and dreaming up inventions. When heavy rains, followed by drought, hit his country and the corrupt government didn’t respond, young William used his scientific ingenuity to help people in need. He began making a windmill out of “bottle-cap washers, rusted tractor parts, and [an] old bicycle frame,” and, to the amazement of family and community, it was a success. Soon he dreamed of conquering darkness, pumping water to the villages, and fighting hunger. This young readers’ edition of the bestselling adult memoir The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope (already adapted as a picture book by the same name) has been simplified for a middle-grade audience, unfortunately losing some of the lyricism of the original. (Chapter one in the adult version opens, “Before I discovered the miracles of science, magic ruled the world.” Chapter one here begins, “My name is William Kamkwamba, and to understand the story I’m about to tell, you must first understand the country that raised me.”) Both versions have a straightforward narrative arc: because of the book’s prologue, readers know that William’s wind machine will be successful and that they, the readers, are to be inspired. And it is inspiring — a well-told true tale of one young man’s passion for science making his world better.

From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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17. Review of Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom

lowery_turning 15 on the road to freedomTurning 15 on the Road to Freedom:
My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March

by Lynda Blackmon Lowery, as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley; illus. by PJ Loughran
Middle School, High School   Dial   128 pp.
1/15   978-0-8037-4123-2   $19.99   g

Lowery offers a revealing look at a childhood spent in the midst of the civil rights movement. As a teenager, the Selma, Alabama, native was there to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak out for black voting rights; she was tear-gassed and beaten on “Bloody Sunday” (as Lowery writes, in perhaps the understatement of the century, “It was not a good day to be around white people”); and she was among the three hundred people who marched from Selma to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery in 1965. Lowery’s voice is consistently engaging (“After that first time [in jail], I wasn’t so afraid, because I was with my buddies and we knew we had each other’s back. What we could do with each other’s backs, I don’t know. Those white policemen had billy clubs and guns”) and casual even as she parcels out often-harrowing memories (such as her time spent in the jail’s “sweatbox”: “There was no air…There was no toilet…There was nothing but heat in an iron box”). Period photos are incorporated seamlessly into the book design, and Loughran captures the emotions of the times with boldly colored illustrations. An epilogue of sorts — “Why Voting Rights?” — gives an excellent explanation of the significance of the right to vote for African Americans while making mention of the Supreme Court’s controversial 2013 changes to the Voting Rights Act. A strong addition to the canon of civil rights books for young people.

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18. Novels to supplement history | Part 1

This year, I started a new role as the 8th grade Humanities teacher. I began the school year with an ambitious “Novels of the World” plan that would flawlessly integrate every Common Core standard in Reading, Writing, Listening, and Speaking along with the world history.

Then reality hit me in the throat.

I realized that even though I’m technically teaching “English Language Arts,” the colorful demographics of my class means I am also unofficially teaching a lot of English Language Development. I started noticing that in the mushy realm of “middle school humanities,” history ends up getting the shorter end of the stick — probably because English is more heavily tested than history. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to choose which area to skimp, but this is reality.

So, to make sure that some history gets into each ELA lesson (and to provide yet another lens for students to learn history), I correlate the novels I teach with the history unit. There are also times when I can’t devote that much time or depth to the history unit. In those cases, I give book talks to let my students know about different leveled books available for their enjoyment.

Below are books in bold that I’ve personally used either in whole-class or small group instruction.* There are also books that I’ve included that I plan to use in the future. Also, as I compiled the list, I realized this post was getting too long, so I’ll have the second half up next month!


Anna of ByzantiumByzantine Empire

Anna of Byzantium by Tracy Barrett
To be honest, this book was difficult. I had to explain much context and there were not too many exciting plot jumps. My students were still curious, but I would say that this would be a more advanced reading level and probably not the best way to start the year. It was great, however, for teaching figurative language, point of view, and character development. Anna is also a great female protagonist, and there are many teachable moments throughout the book.

 


One Thousand and One Arabian NightsRise of Islam

One Thousand and One Arabian Nights by Geraldine McCaughrean
This is one of my favorite books. Although the reading level is a bit lower, the text is complex especially for students who do not have an understanding of the Arabian peninsula. This is a frame-tale narrative so students are able to practice looking at plot structure, setting, character development, theme, and figurative language. This book is full of similes and personification. I differentiated by reading some stories together as a class and expecting extra stories from more advanced readers. I have actually started 7th grade with this book twice now.


SundiataWest Africa

Sundiata: Lion King of Mali by David Wisniewski
So yes, according to the Horn Book Guide, this is meant for K-3. But this book is gorgeous, and I hope to use this and a few other Sundiata narratives to help my students grasp an understanding of the African narrative style and create their own historically accurate play.

 


The Ghost In the Tokaido InnMedieval Japan

The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler
This is a fun mystery that takes place in 18th century Japan. Students clearly enjoyed seeing what they learned about samurai, dishonorable samurai, and the Code of Bushido coming alive in this fast-paced chapter book. I focused on mainly covering suspense, setting, and characterization here.

 

The Samurai's TaleThe Samurai’s Tale by Erik Christian Haugaard
I have only read an excerpt and it seems a bit more high level. I could see this book being very engaging, however, as it starts with quite a lot of action, betrayal, and suspense in the first chapter.

 

•   •   •

In my next post, I will list the books I’ve used for China, South America, Feudal Europe, Renaissance, and the Age of Exploration. Have you used any of these books before? Am I missing some must-have gems? Let me know by commenting below!

*In California, middle school spends one year learning about medieval to modern world history. It usually consists of the fall of Rome, the Byzantine Empire’s rise, the Arabian Peninsula and Islam, West Africa, Medieval Japan and China, South America, and then Europe, Europe, and lots more Europe.

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19. Review of The Cabinet of Curiosities

bachmann cabinet of curiosities Review of The Cabinet of CuriositiesThe Cabinet of Curiosities:
36 Tales Brief & Sinister

by Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand, 
and Emma Trevayne;
illus. by Alexander Jansson
Middle School    Greenwillow    488 pp.
6/14    978-0-06-233105-2    $16.99

Four “curators” — Bachmann, Catmull, Legrand, and Trevayne — travel to lands peregrine and outré to fill their Cabinet of Curiosities museum, sending back grotesqueries and objects of wonder as well as the tales behind them — tales that often bend to the tenebrous and unearthly. The table of contents lists the Cabinet’s “rooms” and “drawers,” each with a theme (cake, luck, tricks, flowers) and four or five tales to explore. In “The Cake Made Out of Teeth” (“collected by” Legrand) a spoiled-rotten boy must finish an entire cake made in his image, despite the sensation of teeth chewing him up with every bite. “Lucky, Lucky Girl” (Catmull) stars a young woman whose good luck seems to depend on the very bad luck of the people around her. In “Plum Boy and the Dead Man” (Bachmann), a rich and opinionated lad has a conversation with a corpse hanging from a tree…and ends up unwillingly changing places with the victim. “The Book of Bones” (Trevayne) features Eleanor Entwhistle, a plucky girl whose courage halts the work of a grave-robbing sorcerer. The stories are remarkable both for their uniformly high quality and for their distinctness from one another; the abundant atmospherics, including occasional stark black-and-white illustrations, provide a unifying sense of dread. The framing device — the curators send letters from the field introducing their latest discoveries — adds depths of mystery, danger, and idiosyncrasy to a book already swimming in each.

From the September/October 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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20. Review of Because They Marched

freeman because they marched Review of Because They MarchedBecause They Marched:
The People’s Campaign for Voting Rights That Changed America

by Russell Freedman
Middle School    Holiday    83 pp.
8/14    978-0-8234-2921-9    $20.00
e-book ed.  978-0-8234-3263-9    $20.00

With characteristically clear prose sprinkled liberally with primary source quotes and carefully selected photographs, Freedman documents the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march that featured the horrific Bloody Sunday confrontation between the marchers and the Alabama state troopers. Captured on television footage by all the major networks, these events convinced the nation — and Congress — that something finally had to be done. That something turned out to be the Voting Rights Act of 1965, “the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement.” Freedman’s introduction is particularly effective because it focuses on the teachers’ march to the courthouse to register as a major trigger for the movement: “For the first time, a recognized professional group from Selma’s black community had carried out an organized protest.” If the book is not quite as visually striking as its notable predecessor, Elizabeth Partridge’s Marching for Freedom (rev. 11/09), nor as invested in the youth participation, its later publication date allows the book to touch on the controversial 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. A timeline, source notes, selected bibliography, and an index are appended.

From the September/October 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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21. One Crazy Summer

williamsgarcia onecrazysummer 198x300 One Crazy SummerOne Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
In the “crazy summer” of 1968, three black sisters set out from Brooklyn to Oakland, California, to reconnect with their estranged mother, an active member of the Black Panther political movement. How does Williams-Garcia balance historical events with the girls’ personal journeys? How do both these aspects of the historical novel interact?

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22. No Crystal Stair

Nelson Crystal Stair 212x300 No Crystal StairNo Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

Documents, photos, fictionalized and true accounts of historical figures and events are woven together in this portrait of Nelson’s larger-than-life great uncle Lewis Michaux. What to you make of the blending of elements and genres in this work (which I described as “defying categorization” when presenting the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction in 2012)?

 

Note from Lolly: Here is a link to Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s and R. Gregory Christie’s acceptance speeches when this book won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award:

YouTube video
Print version

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23. Review of Gracefully Grayson

polonsky gracefully grayson Review of Gracefully GraysonGracefully Grayson
by Ami Polonsky
Intermediate, Middle School    Hyperion    247 pp.
11/14    978-1-4231-8527-7    $16.99

Grayson, a sixth grader at Porter Middle School, passes the time doodling and daydreaming about what it would be like to go through life as a girl, despite being seen by everyone else as male. Struggling with the total isolation that comes with harboring a secret, Grayson keeps people at a distance until Amelia moves to town. The two develop a friendship that awakens Grayson’s need for companionship and acceptance. When that friendship falls apart, Grayson tries out for (and lands) the female lead in the school play as a means of testing out a female persona. Facing abuse and derision from classmates and resistance from members of her adoptive family (both birth parents were killed years before), Grayson fights for the right to present her truest self to the people around her — both on and off the stage. Luckily, an invested teacher and several open-minded cast mates offer understanding and support as Grayson begins to sort out the complexities of her own identity. Polonsky captures the loneliness of a child resigned to disappear rather than be rejected, and then the courageous risk that child eventually takes to be seen for who she is. The first-person narration successfully positions readers to experience Grayson’s confusion, fear, pain, and triumphs as they happen, lending an immediate and intimate feel to the narrative.

From the November/December 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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24. On Bullying

I know I've written about bullying before, but recent events have hurt someone dear to me. Please forgive. I'm starting this at 4-something in the morning because I'm mad. In my neck of the woods, we sometimes say "pissed" when one is this mad. Not "pissed" drunk like our friends across the pond, but "pissed off."

I am.

I'm tried of bullies. I'm tired of them at my job as a middle school/high school guidance counselor and I'm tired of the unfortunate reality that bullies exist as adults, too. Once upon a time, I believed in some fairy tale version of adulthood in which all the bullies matured and shed their evil skin. Like all fairy tales, this one is fiction.

Bullies are everywhere and every age, and if they've shed any skin, it's only to grown a more insidious one in its place. 

The bullies at school are sneaky. A teacher turns away and one boy punches another. They wait until I pass during lunch duty, and call their target names. In many ways, the girls are worst. I could relate scores of personal examples from my job, and it wouldn't take much to do a simple Google search and find stacks of digital articles on the subject.

Females--girls and grown women--like to do their bullying in different ways than boys. They often ostracize and exclude. They post hideous untruths online and laugh when their target's life falls apart. They've found ways to belittle via social media I shudder to recall. The motives are varied, but one constant keeps surfacing: if one is the bully, it steers attention to someone else. In the bully's mind, as long as someone else is the target, it's not her.

It hurts me to watch the cruelty at my job and hurts me in my neighborhood. Yes, my neighborhood lives in the shadow of a bully and I'm tried of it. Just like the girls at school, adult bullies ostracize and exclude. They manipulate and maneuver to make sure the target is not them. Sometimes the cruelty wears the most subtle cloak--for example, repeatedly leaving someone's name off a mailing list about neighborhood activities.

I was the target of bullying in middle school. The ride from my school to the high school for band class in 7th grade was especially agonizing. We would load the unsupervised bus--because let's be honest about the driver's ability to both drive and make sure passengers weren't being douche bags--and take a five minute jaunt from one school to the other. I heard "fag" and "gay" more times than I could count during those five minutes. A group of boys a year or two older than me would hound me after school during an arduous walk home. The walk was only four blocks, but it felt like four hundred.

Sometimes I feel so powerless when confronted with bullying at my job. It's especially difficult as an adult in my own neighborhood. No one--not one living creature--has the right to make anyone else feel like those ass hats made me feel in middle school. It turns my stomach that so many continue their cruelty long after the bus engine has gone cold.

So what do we do? Talk about it... write about it. Stand up and be counted among those who will not tolerate such behavior. There are more victims than bullies, and like most forms of darkness, this one cannot stand the light.

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25. Best New Kids Stories | January 2015

Popular series, a new addition to the American Girl conglomerate, and a Disney Frozen book make this month's selection of best new kids books totally a kids' choice list!

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